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Friday, June 09, 2023

Former employee embarks on legal journey against abusive work culture at Collier Companies

Anthoné Gerenis recounts cover-ups, settlements, non-disclosure agreements, retaliation, harassment and unwanted sexual touching

Gainesville Place Apartments, a student housing center, sits on Southwest 35th Place on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.
Gainesville Place Apartments, a student housing center, sits on Southwest 35th Place on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

The Collier Companies is one of the largest student housing companies and employers in Gainesville, responsible for providing thousands of UF students with a safe home and hundreds more with a stable job. 

Yet, residents and employees alike feel they’ve been let down, ignored, used and betrayed. 

During the Summer and Fall semesters, residents of Collier apartments have brought safety concerns to front offices, witnessed serial problems with no tangible solutions, dealt with rising rent prices and protested the company’s decision to evict tenants receiving supplemental income. 

Specifically, Collier-owned Gainesville Place Apartments, located at 2800 SW 35th Place, was the location of more than 250 calls to Gainesville Police Department within a nine month span in 2021. Instances included rape and kidnapping, attempted break-ins, burglary and exposure to public masturbation. But the complex’s administration took no actions to improve security. 

Collier residents have been witnesses, victims and survivors of crimes. Former employees have been, too. 

Anthoné Gerenis was a young, homeless and hopeful Black man in Miami. Today, he’s a survivor seeking justice through a legal battle.

Gerenis was not yet 18 when he decided to move to Gainesville to attend UF. He became a tenant of a Collier apartment and was soon hired for a minimum wage job. 

Over the summer of 2009, he embarked on his professional career with The Collier Companies. Along with the job came what he calls a nightmarish work culture — full of cover-ups, settlements, non-disclosure agreements, intimidation, retaliation, sexual harassment and sexual assault that he experienced firsthand in the years that followed.

Gerenis remembers being told this company is a family. In a way, they did become like a family for him — until he became a witness to their true colors.

With 26 communities in Gainesville alone, Collier claims to be the largest provider in the nation of student housing owned by a private individual. The company aims to double its number of apartment homes across the nation over the next decade.

It boasts having more than 12,000 conventional and student apartment homes. Collier has focused on providing housing in the southeastern United States, but it reaches as far as Georgia and Oklahoma. The company provides housing in some of the biggest college towns in Florida, namely Gainesville and Tallahassee. 

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Gerenis said everything that happens at Collier runs through one man: Nathan Collier.

Since Gerenis’ first day on the job and over the next few years, he said there were constant reminders that Nathan Collier was in full control of Gainesville and his employees.

Gerenis believes leadership starts at the very top of the company, and the habits and reputations of leadership trickle down to every facet of the company. 

Early in Gerenis’ career, he wasn’t aware of compromising situations involving high-ranking employees. Within two years of being hired, Gerenis was promoted. He was given an increase in pay and bonuses, the 2010 Office Team Member of the Year title, and he earned bachelor’s degree in telecommunications at UF in 2011. Then, he worked as a full-time employee as assistant manager at Gainesville Place Apartments. 

There, he had direct interactions with students who made up the majority of Collier's workforce. He heard instances of these young workers experiencing issues with direct management, such as community and property managers, as well as senior management from the headquarters office — something Gerenis would soon experience himself.

In December 2011, Gerenis was promoted to the headquarters office in Downtown Gainesville, located at 220 N Main St., and given the responsibilities of traveling to all properties the company owned in Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma. In the following months, Gerenis became more familiar than he wished with Michael Still, who managed the most extensive portfolio of properties and employees in the company at the time. 

“Within six months of my promotion into headquarters, I became intimately aware of the culture of harassment and assault involving employees and student employees,” Gerenis said.

During Gerenis’ travels to different properties, coworkers complained about Still’s sexual harassment and unfair treatment. Following protocol, Gerenis reported it and HR told him it opened an investigation.

As of Dec. 5, neither The Collier Companies nor Nathan Collier could be reached for comment despite multiple phone calls, emails and a visit to two homes registered under his name.

In July 2012, Still was terminated from the company by executive team members, President Diana Miner, Vice President Mike Wilkie, Nathan Collier, CEO James Hogshead, President of Operations Jennifer Clince and HR Director Elizabeth Guynn. 

Gerenis said he got to know Nathan Collier fairly well during his time with the company, even flying on his private jet together. 

“Either he was completely aware of everything going on, which is completely terrible, or he was unaware, which is an unconscionable lack of control,” Gerenis said. 

Although Still was separated from the company, Gerenis said other instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault and intimidation involving high-up employees continued. But he trusted these complaints were being handled properly. 

A former executive leadership employee at Collier for just over a year confirmed these issues had been happening long before they joined the company. 

“It’s very much like a cult environment,” said the former executive granted anonymity out of fear of retaliation. 

Nathan Collier tweeted a quote by Todd Whitaker Oct. 19 that read “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior its leaders are willing to tolerate.” 

The employee said Nathan Collier is a gifted public speaker who prides himself as a humble leader. 

“I can tell you from my own personal experience that it is a show,” the former executive employee said. “It is all an act.” 

After eight years working for the company, Gerenis left Collier for another job opportunity. In what Gerenis described as coincidental timing –– especially knowing the damaging information he had –– The Collier Companies offered a job to Still exactly five years after Still’s termination. 

Just weeks later, Still became the vice president of operations, a position higher than he was in before his termination. 

Gerenis later came to realize why Still’s rehire went so smoothly. He recalled an extremely high turnover rate at all levels of the company, meaning there would be few employees, if any, that knew of the complaints against Still like Gerenis does. 

Gerenis was offered an HR position with Collier after about 10 months with his other job. Unaware of Still’s rehire, he accepted it. In Gerenis’ position, he learned all files are destroyed every five years, leaving no paper trail of any misconduct of employees — making the coincidence of Still’s timely rehire not so coincidental anymore. 

While Gerenis worked in human resources at headquarters, he learned that the treatment of tenants was based on numbers rather than needs. He said tenants were described around the office as “just a number” and “expendable.” 

He heard a motto frequently used in the headquarters office: “heads and beds” — to house as many tenants as possible.

“They’re seen as just an asset,” Gerenis said. “An ever increasing asset that we extract money from.”

After working with Still again around July 2018, Gerenis began experiencing sexual harassment. 

Another anonymous, former high-ranking employee who worked with the company for about 10 years, said they mentored hundreds of people during their time with the company. 

They said multiple young women working for the company would say they are experiencing harassment, mistreatment and intimidation and were afraid of reporting these claims to HR because there is “no confidentiality.”

As Gerenis learned more in his role at HR, he understood why there was no accountability for misconduct. He said reporting it fell on deaf ears. While working in HR, he saw reports shared with higher-up executive employees that would then come to be dismissed. 

The same anonymous source had close interactions with Still and heard him call other employees derogatory names — Gerenis included. They said Still was “instrumental” in pushing out a pregnant woman from working with the company because she couldn’t fulfill her duties.

Gerenis said Still would ask him sexually-charged questions about his genitals and if he knew any other gay men in the company that “would be down to have some fun and looking for a daddy?”

By August 2018, Still began sexually assaulting him. His frequent displays of sexual arousal to Gerenis — touching his inner thigh and lower back — quickly turned into Still taking Gerenis with him on errands, locking themselves in the car and forcefully touching Gerenis’ genitals and assaulting him before Gerenis manually unlocked it and escaped.

In September 2018, Gerenis initiated a companywide sexual harassment training, but needed Still’s approval. Still asked Gerenis again about other gay men in the office, becoming aggressive and sexually assaulting Gerenis.

Later in September 2018, Still insisted Gerenis join him for a work-related drink, despite Gerenis’ refusal. Still picked him up anyway from his company-owned home. This night consisted of unwanted sexual advancements, harassment, groping, assault and forceful consumption of alcohol. 

Still told the waiter to continue filling Gerenis’ wine glass, using the company credit card to pay for the night out as he was the one to approve the transactions. 

“He is responsible for the experience of his employees,” Gerenis said. “It’s his duty to be in control.”

About a year ago, Still was killed by a car while walking close to his house. While Gerenis expressed his condolences to Still’s family, he said he regrets not being able to sit across from him in a trial by jury.

In December 2018, after going to Still to report mold in Gerenis’ company home, Still turned their interaction into another uncomfortable and inappropriate situation, asking Gerenis if it’s worth his time to help fix the mold while winking and grabbing his genitals. 

The mold was ignored again, as Still sexually harassed him later in the month for following up, Generis said.

After getting an estimate from Best Restoration, an outside company, out of concern for his health, Gerenis said Still continued to ignore the issue. When Gerenis confronted Still and asked to have the mold fixed again, Still denied him outright and then asked if he would be invited to Gerenis’ bedroom. 

In March 2019, Gerenis’ doctors ordered an endoscopy, colonoscopy and requested a sample of the mold in the home and had procedures scheduled for March 19, 2019, which Collier responded to by asking Gerenis to vacate by the following Sunday, only six days after the procedure. 

The same month, Gerenis learned of another coworker who Still locked his car while dropping him off at his company-provided house and sexually touched him against his will. He told Generis he didn’t trust other HR employees and knew nothing would come out of reporting it. 

Also, Gerenis met with another coworker who confessed he felt unfairly treated by Still because he was the only heterosexual male on the team and wasn’t reciprocating Still’s advances.

“As much as I would love to pin all the blame on Mr. Still on what he did and his actions, he is a product of the environment which he was brought up in,” Gerenis said. 

Feeling a complete lack of trust and failure by the company, Gerenis filed an official complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

On May 30, 2019, Guynn, the HR director, and Still threatened Gerenis in a meeting, telling him his mental fitness and anxiety are getting in the way of his role in the company and he should start looking for jobs elsewhere. 

“The culture is ‘We can do and say whatever we want,’” the former, anonymous executive employee said.

So, he decided to immediately finish the EEOC complaint that night. 

The following day, Gerenis was brought into Guynn’s office with Still. Gerenis expressed dismay at their attempt to use his anxiety as an excuse to say he is mentally unstable. 

Then, Still fired Gerenis. 

Still then winked at Gerenis as he left the office.

He walked Gerenis to his car and attempted to hug him to say goodbye. Gerenis said he backed away immediately and asked to be left alone, to which Still reacted by giving one last wink.

You should have kept your mouth shut. Good f---ing luck.

Gerenis left the office peacefully after putting up with years of harassment, misconduct, retaliation and assault. He said the company had failed him, just like they had failed countless employees before him and the inevitable employees that will follow. Gerenis is a survivor that experienced firsthand horrors of unchecked power and control. 

“An environment of sexual exploitation, quid pro quo, harassment, plus a host of other activities all have been hidden with different cover-ups and corruption,” Gerenis said.

After years of abuse, he lost his home and job at a moment's notice. Now, he wants accountability for the ones taking advantage of Collier’s employees and tenants of their apartments. 

“Unfortunately what happened to me is in the past and I can’t change that, but I am concerned about what the potential can be for the vulnerable student population,” Gerenis said. 

In the following months after his termination, Gerenis said he received threats from other former employees and an employee still with the company who said he needs to watch his back. The employee still with the company after Gerenis’ termination said Still was furious and warned that he has powerful friends. 

During the anonymous former executive’s time at the company, they got to know Gerenis as a hard-working, kind and professional employee. 

The former executive employee noticed the real culture of the company within 60 days of working there, they said. They also had close, professional interactions with Nathan Collier and traveled on his private jet regularly.

“He rules that empire with an iron fist,” the employee said.

In hindsight, the anonymous former executive said other executive level employees absolutely took advantage of Gerenis because he was a young, Black man, citing the mold issue in the company-provided house that was kept to house the “African American employees.”

Over the 10 years the former high-ranking employee worked for the company, they learned the student workers, which make up a large percentage of The Collier Companies, are viewed as cheap and replaceable. They said Collier’s tenants are seen in the same light and under no circumstances would the company consider hiring security for apartment complexes. 

The former high-ranking employee is worried about tenants being taken advantage of. 

They want any present and future employees of the company to stand their ground and be careful so no more employees have to witness and experience what Gerenis had to. Change will hopefully come to the company because it will continue to happen, the anonymous source said. 

Both anonymous sources described their time with the company as frustrating. The company will blacklist employees leaving the company if it’s on the wrong terms, they both said. 

“Unfortunately, it's a million percent true,” the former executive said. “It just is. I would like to say that that’s the first time, but it’s not.” 

Gerenis is being represented by attorney Kevin Sanderson and PR representative Laurie Watkins through the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund administered by the National Women’s Law Center, a 50-year-old gender justice organization. 

The defense fund focuses on employees experiencing workplace sexual harassment and helping survivors connect with attorneys, assisting with legal fees and providing media assistance. 

Director of TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund Sharyn Tejani said roughly 6,000 people have reached out for assistance and about 4% are men. Tejani said she wants to bring more awareness to workplace sexual harassment and how common it can be. 

Although it’s reported less, Tejani wants more people to know sexual harassment can happen to men, like in Gerenis’ case. She said she sees cases of sexual harassment based on gender, race, economic status and sexual orientation. 

Watkins and Sanderson are assisting Gerenis with a legal complaint filed Feb. 15, in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Florida. Gerenis’ team understands the difficult road ahead, considering all the other survivors who are afraid to come forward or are in contracts that prevent them from doing so. 

Gerenis’ team said the company’s power runs deep in terms of political connections and connections to other companies. Nathan Collier’s father, Courtland Collier, was a Gainesville City Commissioner for 18 years. 

“The reach and power that [Nathan] does have is not just smoke and mirrors,” Watkins said. “It’s real.” 

The case is scheduled for arbitration, a way to resolve disputes outside the judiciary courts, in February. Gerenis is seeking to recover damages for his loss of health insurance, income, housing and the verbal, mental and physical abuse he endured for years at the hands of Still.  

Gerenis wants better training programs implemented in the company while bringing awareness to forced arbitration to protect student employees, specifically people of color. 

Between Gerenis and the anonymous, former employees, they know of 24 other employees who experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. They said some are afraid to come forward, some have signed non-disclosure agreements and some have been forced to move on. 

“The minute you try to go and talk to outsiders, you are persona non grata,” Gerenis said. “They’re coming after you.”

Gerenis said he wants to keep fighting for all the silenced voices and bring forth a new standard for workplace culture. Although he’s seeking justice, he’ll always be forced to live with what happened to him and others. 

Contact Troy Myers at or follow him on Twitter @Troy_Myers1.

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Troy Myers

Troy is the criminal justice reporter and a fourth-year journalism major with an outside focus in business administration. He previously studied accounting for two years at Santa Fe College but has since transferred to UFCJC. When Troy isn’t writing, he enjoys going to the beach and spending time with his dog, identical twin brother and family.

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